‘We have to figure out ways to fix it.’ As bullpen inconsistencies persist, the Chicago Cubs carry on.

‘We have to figure out ways to fix it.’ As bullpen inconsistencies persist, the Chicago Cubs carry on.

When Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer thinks back on some of the calmer moments of his long front-office career, a lock-down closer tends to take center stage.

As the Cubs bullpen inconsistencies have been impossible to ignore, despite entering Monday with the third-most wins in the National League, Hoyer recalled how having Jonathan Papelbon and Aroldis Chapman as the closer on past teams in Boston and Chicago is a good feeling.

“I wouldn’t mind getting back to that where you feel like you can sort of pack up your stuff in the ninth inning and not have a lot of anxiety,” Hoyer said Monday, chuckling. “That’s where we all want to be. There are not many guys in the game you can say that about. Obviously our job is to trade for one or sign one or to develop one. Teams that have those, they feel really comfortable.”

The Cubs have relied on their relievers heavily through the first 35 games. Their combined 136 innings pitched are tied with the San Diego Padres for fifth-most in Major League Baseball while the bullpen’s 4.57 ERA is tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks for 22nd. The group has struggled especially with stranding runners on base, posting a 65.6 left on base percentage that ranks second-worst ahead of only the San Francisco Giants (64.9%). And in the highest-leverage moments, the bullpen has wavered.

An injury to Julian Merryweather that will keep him out until early June hasn’t helped. Hoyer hopes veteran Michael Fulmer’s turnaround last year serves as an example of how a struggling reliever can still become a valuable piece in the ’pen.

“I don’t think you can gloss over it ever and say, hey, it’s going to work out,” Hoyer said. “We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to make it better or ways to make adjustments. … There’s never a point where you get too comfortable, almost like with starting pitching. You’re constantly working to make that area better and make it evolve.

“Obviously we’ve given up too many leads so far, there’s no secret in that, and we have to figure out ways to fix it.”

The bullpen faltered again in Monday’s 6-3 loss to the Padres, allowing six runs during the sixth inning in relief of left-hander Justin Steele in his return to the rotation from the injured list. In his first start since opening day, Steele didn’t give up a run in 4 2/3 innings against the Padres, who managed three hits, one walk and struck out twice.

Only the White Sox (nine) have blown more saves than the Cubs (eight), who are tied with five other teams.

Right-hander Adbert Alzolay has been responsible for five of them; he recorded just three blown saves in 25 chances last year. Devastating home runs have killed Alzolay. His five home runs allowed in 13 innings match his total allowed in 64 innings in 2023. Four of those long balls Alzolay has surrendered this year have come in blown saves.

When assessing what has gone wrong for Alzolay, Hoyer believes there is a snowball effect to how things have gotten away from the right-hander.

“You make a couple bad pitches early in the season in big spots and give up homers and then you start searching for why that’s happening and you sort of lose who you are,” Hoyer said. “Adbert, at his best, he’s not a guy that’s throwing 100 (mph) and is wiping out with stuff. He was a starting pitcher that turned into a bullpen guy who knows how to pitch and when he gets back to commanding his pitches, I think gets through that stretch and he’ll be just fine.”

Hoyer anticipates multiple factors will play a role in the bullpen collectively turning things around, primarily a healthier rotation bolstering their relief options, scuffling relievers getting on track and external options.

“But that stuff is generally not available this time of year,” Hoyer said of trade additions. “And so the focus right now is getting healthy and improving guys that might be struggling.”

Hoyer considers the Miami Marlins-Padres weekend trade that sent two-time batting champion Luis Arraez to San Diego for a reliever and three prospects a “rare one-off.” He knew that trade was in the works from general talks with the Marlins so he wasn’t surprised, however, Hoyer doesn’t expect that to kick off a ton of early deals. Hoyer didn’t rule out the trade activity possibly picking up earlier than usual ahead of the July 30 trade deadline.

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“There’s not a lot of deals available this time of year,” Hoyer said. “So from that standpoint, we’re in touch, we’re on the phone with everybody, but I think you expect you have to at least get more into the season for the most part until those things become a reality.”

Stellar starting pitching has helped the Cubs mitigate the bullpen’s hiccups.

Manager Craig Counsell recognized the rotation’s performance by name, calling Shota Imanaga (0.78 ERA) and Javier Assad (1.66) “brilliant” and Jameson Taillon’s first four starts (1.13) off the injured list “excellent” while Hayden Wesneski (0.54) and Ben Brown (2.84 ERA in rotation) have given them important performances out of the ’pen and as starters. With left-hander Justin Steele coming off the injured list Monday to face the Padres in his first start since opening day, Brown will be utilized out of the bullpen during this series.

The rotation’s 3.13 ERA this season entering Monday is fourth-best in the majors, trailing only the Mariners (3.11), Phillies (2.65) and Red Sox (2.10). The Cubs’ figure notably includes Kyle Hendricks’ 12.00 ERA through five starts. Hoyer isn’t worrying about looking too far ahead of the rotation decisions the Cubs will need to make when Hendricks and left-hander Jordan Wicks are ready to return from the IL.

“It was as good as you could hope for,” Hoyer said. “All those guys have stepped up and really produced for us and that’s what you need to get through through injuries. There’s going to be more — there’s going to be more things that happen and we just have to be able to withstand those things and the more we can get production from everyone the better.”